With one of the nation’s best rebounders and steadiest point guards around him, Pittsburgh’s Sam Young occasionally gets overlooked despite being a top scorer in the Big East.
Just don’t expect Cincinnati to let Young go without notice.
Young scored 20 or more in all three meetings with the Bearcats last season, and Saturday he’ll try to help the fourth-ranked Panthers win their 20th in a row at home against an unranked opponent.
Pittsburgh is in outstanding shape in its frontcourt, where DeJuan Blair is the nation’s top offensive rebounder (6.0) and fifth overall on the boards (12.6). In the backcourt, Levance Fields leads all Division I players in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.87-to-1).
While those two are integral to the success of coach Jamie Dixon’s team, Young is still where the Panthers (22-2, 9-2) go when they’re in need of a clutch basket.
With Blair and Fields in foul trouble early against West Virginia on Monday, Young—averaging 17.9 points per game—took on more of the load. He had 20 points and seven rebounds, the 10th time this season he scored 20 or more, and Pitt beat the Mountaineers 70-59 for its fourth straight victory.
“Obviously, we expect a lot from DeJuan, but Sam stepped up his scoring,” said Fields, who had 13 points and seven assists.
Foul trouble has been the one drawback with Blair in his two seasons, and him being forced off the court cost the Panthers in losses at Louisville and Villanova last month.
When Blair has had three fouls or fewer this season, he’s averaging 17.6 points and 13.8 rebounds. With four or more, he dips to 7.2 points and 8.2 boards.
Blair was in foul trouble twice as a freshman against Cincinnati (17-8, 7-5), playing just 22 minutes and averaging 3.0 points and 4.5 rebounds while often being double- and tripled-teamed. In the other game, he had 18 points and 10 boards in 33 minutes.
The Panthers won two of the three meetings though, largely thanks to Young, who scored at least 20 in all three.
Young had 21 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in Pitt’s 70-64 victory in a first-round Big East tournament game on March 12, and Bearcats coach Mick Cronin felt he was the difference.
“I don’t know how he’s not an unanimous all-Big East player,” Cronin said after the loss. “I’d like to know who didn’t vote for him.”
Cronin took over at his alma mater in March 2006, and the Bearcats have improved in each of his three years on the job. Just 2-14 in the Big East in 2006-07, they improved to 8-10 in the league last season and now have a legitimate shot to make the NCAA tournament.
Cincinnati has won three in a row and seven of nine since an 0-3 conference start. The Bearcats came into a home game Wednesday against St. John’s 14th in the Big East in field goal percentage (42.2), but seemingly couldn’t miss against the Red Storm.
Freshman forward Yancy Gates had a season-high 21 on 8-of-11 shooting, part of a 62.8 percent shooting night for Cincinnati in the 71-61 win.
“Yancy played a great game, and he is a guy that it has been overdue for him” Cronin said. “He does a great job of finishing around the basket.”
Aside from Gates, Pitt will need to pay close attention to junior guard Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati’s leading scorer (16.0). Vaughn averaged 22.7 points and 6.0 assists against the Panthers last season.
Pittsburgh has won 31 of its last 32 at home against unranked teams, losing 77-64 to Rutgers on Jan. 26, 2008.
Following this game, Pitt will travel to Hartford to face top-ranked Connecticut on Monday.